Born in Flames (1983): Lizzie Borden’s Feminist Fable

Lizzie Borden has shaped a polemic feminist cinema concerned with the cultural representation of women. Borden’s political engagement might have begun with the decision to change her name at age 11 from Linda to Lizzie. Borden moved away from the mainstream after graduating from Wellesley College and relocating to New York, where she painted and wrote reviews for Art Forum.

Borden decided to become a filmmaker after attending a Godard retrospective. She taught herself film craft by experimenting with rented equipment. By day, she edited films for Richard Serra, and on weekends, she worked on Born In Flames, a $40,000 self-financed film that took five years to finish.

The militantly feminist Born in Flames is set in New York ten years after a socialist revolution. The white women leaders are dupes, leftist journalists who talk a good line, but have been co-opted by the government. Wordy but gutless, they hold that social change takes time.

Reacting to their mealy-mouth stasis, the black women take matters into their own hands. Some form a women’s anti-violence street brigade, others organize a women’s army, and still others, pushed by joblessness and racism, buy arms. The women want to take over the mass media, which they believe to be the first step in a guerrilla war.

When Borden asked women if they would ever resort to violence, their answer was “No.” She then posed the question: “What if women did use violence What if through a socialist revolution, the hopes of women for an egalitarian system were raised What if we came so close to getting it and then the government began putting women’s needs on the back burner” “What if our second-class status–the fact that we’re always put down–what if we couldn’t escape the violence, the rape, getting kicked out of the job market–what would we do then” This became the premise of her film.

Most of the characters were drawn from real-life personalities Borden has encountered. With the exception of Jeanne Satterfield, who played a woman apprehended by the government for buying arms, the other roles were not played by professionals. It was important that each woman preserves her own profile and speaks in her own voice.

Unfortunately, situated at an unspecified future (that seems remarkably like the present), the movie is neither a fantasy nor an allegory. It begins with several women, few of whom even know each other, going about their business in a casual way. As the story progresses, the characters remain murky. The one rebel, Adelaide, who might function as repository of goals, is killed off in prison, long before the climax. Even so, despite structural and political problems, for a first feature, the ersatz documentary style–grainy texture, hand-held camera, abrupt editing–was impressive.